Linguistic tools for knowledge discovery

March, 2004

The gaps between subject and functional boundaries are one of the best sources of breakthrough innovation. Yet for a variety of reasons — managerial, technical, and editorial — it's often difficult to exploit them. In this article we use an example from our own research and experience to show how linguistic tools such as thesauri, glossaries, and navigation schemes can promote knowledge discovery by exposing potential linkages between seemingly unrelated subjects.

Knowledge discovery in the "white space"
People who study innovation in a corporate setting stress the importance of "thinking outside the box," using cross-functional teams, and exploring the "white space" between mental models. Or, to quote the CEO of Ceramic Process Systems Corporation, "Our most important technical breakthroughs will come from disciplines and literature outside our industry and scientific field" (from Dorothy Leonard's Wellsprings of knowledge).

In their article "Managing in the white space," authors Maletz and Nohria point out that navigating the white space requires a different compass. Part of the difference, according to Clayton Christensen, is related to information systems. In his book, The Innovator's Solution, Christiansen asserts that because corporate IT systems are structured around existing products, customers, and organization units, they are among the most important contributors to failure in innovation. Data purchased from external sources, he says, have the same impact.

Researchers tell companies to introduce systems and processes that will encourage "creative abrasion" and "boundary spanning" (Leonard's words) as well as training to help people identify "disruptive ideas" (Christensen's word).

Linguistic tools for innovation
To support these recommendations, linguistic tools are needed to help people...